The 2021/2022 English Premiership season is edging closer to the play-off rounds, but there are still a lot of things that need to be tied up before we get to that point. Leaders Leicester Tigers have already sealed their place in the post-season matches, with Saracens close to joining them, but the other two places are still up for grabs. One of those teams currently in the play-off picture is Northampton Saints, who have quietly risen up the table as the weeks have gone on.
Their latest test came in the shape of Bristol Bears, who have had a domestic season to forget after two seasons of challenging for the title, and this tactical analysis will look in closer detail at how Northampton approached this game, focusing particularly on how they looked to use the spaces available to them. The analysis will also identify the positives and negatives in Bristol’s performance at Franklin’s Gardens, showing why they have lacked consistency during the current campaign.
Northampton Saints only made one change from last weekend’s Premiership win at London Irish. South African winger Courtnall Skosan was ruled out with an injury, so Tommy Freeman was handed a start after coming off the bench at the Brentford Community Stadium. Lewis Ludlam once again captained the team from the back row, having fully recovered from his own recent injury problems, whilst England’s Courtney Lawes continued to operate as a flanker, allowing David Ribbans and experienced Fiji international Api Ratuniyarawa to continue their partnership in the second row, and Alex Mitchell and Wales captain Dan Biggar started as the two half-backs.
Bristol Bears, meanwhile, made eight alterations in total after their narrow defeat at Saracens, with many of their bigger names coming back into the fold. Two new props were named, with tighthead Jake Armstrong dropping to the bench and loosehead Jake Woolmore pulling out at the last moment, so Yann Thomas and John Afoa were given starts, whilst the other change among the forwards saw flanker Dan Thomas replaced by Jake Heenan. Wales fly-half Callum Sheedy regained his place in the XV after returning from international duty, with Tiff Eden dropping to the bench, whilst Andy Uren was preferred to England’s Harry Randall at scrum-half. Further back, Fijian duo Siva Naulago and Semi Radradra and star full-back Charles Piutau all returned to the starting XV, with Piers O’Conor named on the bench whilst Jack Bates and on-loan Bedford Blues winger Richard Lane were left out.
Northampton Saints’ tactics
Northampton Saints knew that they had to win each of their final five games in order to keep up with those currently holding the top four positions, and it was clear in the early stages that this message had been drilled into the players during the week.
Their tactics seemed to revolve around having a good passing speed, keeping the ball moving around the pitch and never allowing Bristol Bears to make an interception. As a result, every time the ball hit the ground, the home side constantly recycled it and tried to use any spaces available to them. This wasn’t just the case in open play though, as they didn’t tend to engage in rolling mauls after lineouts, instead opting to move the ball into space quickly and break through the Bristol defence where there was less protection.
Here, Courtney Lawes has received a pass from Alex Mitchell and has now turned to find Dan Biggar, but what was key in this example was that the Saints used dummy runs from centre Rory Hutchinson and number 8 Juarno Augustus to take Bristol’s focus away from the ball, meaning that it could be in the air for longer without there being too great a risk of an interception. Lawes’ pass here lacked the necessary quality, meaning that the move broke down, but it still showed how Northampton were looking to get on the front foot and that their confidence was high.
This image illustrates the point we made about Northampton’s lineout tactics, with Mitchell taking the ball and instantly looking inside for a teammate to pass to. Again, the ball was travelling across long distances, but the difference this time was that Biggar and replacement winger Matt Proctor made runs around the back of Hutchinson, which both offered further passing options if needed and again took Bristol’s eyes away from the ball.
As it turned out, neither was involved, with Biggar impeded off the ball by Semi Radradra, resulting in the Fiji international being sent to the sin bin, but the try was still scored through good link up play between Hutchinson, fellow centre Fraser Dingwall and Tommy Freeman, who scored the try.
The reason that the Saints wanted to keep the ball moving was so that they could use the width as often as possible, and it was common to see Biggar or Mitchell looking towards Freeman and Tom Collins whenever they were distributing it. Here, Freeman has received the ball from the fly-half, with space ahead of him to run into. It should be pointed out that this situation comes directly after a scrum, meaning that Bristol only have Charles Piutau coming across to close Freeman down, but the winger’s individual skill is still important here, with a clever kick pass behind allowing him to run around the full-back.
This would have led to a try for the home side, but Freeman regathered the ball with one foot on the line. However, it again demonstrates the confidence with which Northampton were playing, and why they are such a dangerous side at the moment.
Northampton Saints’ spatial awareness
Northampton Saints’ use of spaces was a running theme throughout the match, with Bristol Bears seemingly unable to deal with their fast-paced ball movement, and that is something that this next section will look at in more detail.
The reasons for the Saints having so much space vary, and not all of their forward breaks were down to mistakes by their opponents. However, on this occasion, Bristol were to blame, as they pressed forwards following a lineout but missed two tackle attempts on Hutchinson, with the gap left in their line allowing Northampton to run through and score this try. Again, Northampton didn’t want to compete in rolling mauls and risk the ball being slowed down, whereas Bristol didn’t compete in the air and were waiting for the ball to come back to the ground before engaging, and this was also partly why there was a gap available for Hutchinson and Collins, who scored the try, to run through here.
This time, we need to praise Northampton for their quick thinking and decisiveness, with Lawes picking up the ball after a tackle by Andy Uren on Freeman, but the England forward didn’t then pass behind him to replacement lock Alex Moon, as this would have again slowed play down. Instead, he noticed the undefended blindside of the pitch and made his own run through, gaining a lot of ground for his team and keeping their attacking momentum going, again bringing us back to their key tactics in this game.
Bristol Bears’ positives
We mentioned in the introduction that Bristol Bears’ results have not been good reading, but their performances have shown steady improvement, and this game was proof of that. They did look dangerous at times, and individual players had excellent games, including hooker Harry Thacker and lock Joe Joyce, the latter of whom was captaining the team in the absence of Steven Luatua.
They dealt with Northampton Saints’ early pressure well, with the Saints unable to make their dominance count, and that gave Bristol confidence to push forward when they had the opportunity to do so. What they did well here was the basics, with accurate passing and good attacking speed meaning that every player was in the right position to help move the ball through the gap created by Freeman’s poor tackle attempt on Thacker, before Radradra capped off the move by scoring the first try of the match.
What was especially important here was the pass from Thacker to Radradra, with a pass from Joyce in a similar situation last weekend going forwards and a try therefore not being awarded, leading to Bristol losing the game. Here, Thacker waited for England full-back George Furbank to commit to him before perfectly timing his pass, and this shows development for the Bears, even if it is just a small detail.
They also had a good spatial awareness during the game when in possession, with this situation showing how they took advantage of a defensive error by the home side to score a try. Mitchell has been drawn inside, whilst Hutchinson has not reacted and subsequently left a gap open and this was all the invitation that Bristol needed to attack the line. French centre Antoine Frisch has the ball, with Callum Sheedy running outside him just as Biggar and Proctor did in the earlier example, and the added presence of Piutau on the outside of the defence gave Bristol the width they needed to make the most of this chance.
When Bristol are good, they are very good, and what is clear is that they still have the individual quality in the squad to score tries and trouble their opponents. However, the issue is that we haven’t seen enough of these positive moments from them this season, and that is what has let them down more often than not.
Bristol Bears’ negatives
Having made those positive points, we can’t get away from the fact that this was another loss for Bristol Bears, and that means that we need to analyse where they went wrong and need to keep improving, and the good news is that a lot of this is down to small errors which can be easily fixed.
Something that we have associated with Bristol a lot this season is a lack of consistency, as mentioned in the introduction. We have seen an example of good passing from them, but this is where they didn’t make the most of their attack, with Radradra looking to offload the ball to a teammate but not having anyone in the right position to gather it cleanly. Whilst Piers O’Conor, who had come on as a replacement, did manage to reach the ball, he had lost a lot of time and Northampton had had a chance to get back and close off the spaces that were previously available for the Bears to exploit.
It wasn’t only Bristol who lost possession and momentum too easily, as there were examples of Northampton doing the same thing. The difference is that it was more costly for the Bears, given the position they were in not just in this game, but also in the league, when every point they can get will help them to build confidence and start next season in a better way than they did this one.
They also struggled with set pieces, most notably lineouts, where several throws not going straight meant that they didn’t make the most of the threatening areas that they got into. Here, Tiff Eden, another second half replacement, is kicking a penalty up the field and trying to put pressure on the Saints in the closing stages of the game, but doesn’t find touch and Northampton replacement George Hendy was able to start another attack for his side. It was moments like this where Bristol’s overall lack of quality stood out and where they will feel that they could have done better.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in close detail at the English Premiership match between Northampton Saints and Bristol Bears, breaking down both teams’ performances and showing why Northampton took the win at Franklin’s Gardens. It wasn’t a perfect performance from the Saints, but, at this stage of the season, it is all about getting the points, so they will be pleased with that. Bristol will obviously take the positives from this game but will also feel that, given they took the lead and had some really promising moments, this was a match that got away from them. There were some debatable calls from the officials that perhaps didn’t go in their favour, but that didn’t decide the outcome of the match, with this analysis highlighting other reasons for the result.
The domestic season takes a break for the next two weeks, with European competitions taking over. Northampton have already been knocked out of the Champions Cup, so will not be back in action until 23 April, when they travel to Bath in the league. Bristol, meanwhile, face Sale Sharks over the next couple of weekends, knowing that losing will end any hopes of lifting a trophy this season.